The Core of Lutheran CORE: American Civil Religion and White Male Backlash

You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things…. Do you despise the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed…. For those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

—Romans 2:1-5, 8

[1] Empires divide to conquer. Christians have often been prevented from the fullness of our witness to the gospel, if not completely conquered, by internal bickering that resolves upon historical examination into causes that have less to do with central doctrines or practices of Christianity than with jockeying for position in relationship to imperial privilege.1 Just such jockeying for power, for what Paul called “self-seeking,” is at the core of Lutheran CORE, the so-called “Coalition for Reform.” Lutheran CORE, in The Core of Lutheran CORE: American Civil Religion and White Male Backlash by Jon Pahlits mildest form, seeks to siphon funds away from the ELCA into ostensibly purer activities, some of them sponsored by The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). In its most extreme form, CORE seeks to foment schism and organize dissenting ELCA congregations into a new church — the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

[2] Lutheran CORE claims to represent Lutheran orthodoxy, but, as I shall show, in fact abandons historic Lutheranism at crucial turns in favor of an American civil religion. This accretion of an American imprint on CORE’s version of Lutheranism mirrors, as the epigraph from Paul suggests, how CORE leaders have repeatedly accused faithful ELCA leaders of having themselves sold out to “America.”2 Even more, the leaders of Lutheran CORE, because they assert a self-righteous American moralism about sex and marriage as a litmus test of ecclesiastical purity, confuse law and gospel, and imperil the clear truth of salvation by grace through faith that is the actual core of historical and confessional Lutheran teaching. When teaching about sex replaces teaching about salvation as a defining mark of the church, something has clearly gone severely awry.

[3] All in all, the core of Lutheran CORE is rotten. One can get more than a whiff of Docetism, Donatism, and Pelagianism — heresies all — in the doctrinal formulations of the various groups represented in the coalition. Lutheran CORE represents, in its demographic and historical contours, a largely white, heterosexual, male backlash against the supposedly evil changes in gender roles, sexual mores, and participatory democracy that marked the 1960s. At the same time, the leaders of the movement also ironically embrace many of the least savory aspects of the sixties rhetoric of adolescent resentment and entitlement. Most fundamentally, the leaders of Lutheran CORE have come to the brink of dividing the church in an attempt to hold onto (or to carve out) some power. The movement undermines the universal need to repent and to trust in grace that it claims to uphold, and it substitutes for the gospel a pale version of American imperial ambition. That the movement obstructs God’s demand to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, in an attempt to prop up the privilege of a powerful few, almost goes without saying. As is the case with many other schismatic purity movements in American religious history, however, for all of its sound and fury, Lutheran CORE is doomed to be a historical footnote, or a cipher, in the larger history of the body of Christ.

[4] The historical relationship between Lutherans and “America” is, to say the least, complex. On the one hand, Lutherans have embraced voluntarism and the separation of church and state. The stunning (and largely unknown) histories of Lutheran social ministries or enterprises like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and the 300-plus agencies of Lutheran Services in America, among others, point to a decided capacity on the part of Lutherans across ethnic traditions to adapt Christian witness to the world of free enterprise on behalf of social justice.3 On the other hand, many Lutherans seem wedded to nostalgic longing for the authoritarian security of ethnic nationalist state churches of an earlier age, now cast as custodial responsibility for the moral stability of American empire.4 Such nostalgia and imperial longing for authoritative power mark Lutheran CORE.

[5] Scholars have long debated the contours and existence of American civil religion, but few doubt that there have been blurry boundaries between devotion to Christianity and devotion to the nation over the centuries.5 In recent years, especially under the influence of the so-called “religious right,” with which Lutheran CORE leaders identify on many issues, those boundaries have become especially permeable. Scholars such as Catherine Albanese, Richard Hughes, Robert Jewett, Carolyn Marvin, and many others, have documented several themes in American history that mark the civil religion.6

[6] First, Americans back to the Calvinist Puritans of the 17th and early 18th centuries tend to invest America itself with providential significance. America is a city on a hill, a chosen nation, a redeemer culture, with millennial import, aligned against evil enemies who must be identified and eliminated. This dualistic sense of American exceptionalism can develop in two ways (occasionally in the same individual). Sometimes civil devotees celebrate a triumphalist and glorious past (or future). Sometimes civil devotees express apocalyptic dread over impending judgment.7

[7] But both American triumphalists and apocalyptists tend to manifest a second characteristic feature of the American civil religion, namely, moralism. This trait can be traced less to the Puritans than to their theological opponents, the Arminian Baptists, Methodists and Enlightenment philosophes who ruled the late 18th and 19th centuries. Whether celebrating American “sacred liberty” or condemning threats to American “virtue,” for devotees of American civil religion the stability of the Republic (which tends to get conflated with the church) resolves to jeremiad-like judgments about moral purity or impurity.8

[8] Thirdly, then, largely under the sway of the revivalist evangelicalism that dominated popular culture in America from Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham, the American civil religion is profoundly individualist. Religion is a matter of “the heart,” or of individual belonging. Averse to systemic thinking, and prone to anti-intellectualism, devotees of American civil religion reduce matters of faith to matters between the individual soul and God (or the nation).9 Congregationalism is thus the ecclesiastical form most suited to the civil religion. Denominations (and institutions more broadly) are suspect as threats to individual liberty, and as rivals to the transcendent nation/God.10

[9] Finally, then, devotees of the American civil religion have tended to manifest what I call in my recent book Empire of Sacrifice “innocent domination.” That is, in American history and culture, some individuals (and movements) have repeatedly dressed up violence as noble, righteous, and even pure, in various explicit or implicit calls for sacrifice, or in calls to exclude impure others from participation in church or state.[11] In this mentalité, oppressors get represented as victims, and those who are both privileged and dominant self-righteously imagine that the violence they do is justified in a “sacred” cause. All four of these marks of the American civil religion — millennialism, moralism, individualism and innocent domination — appear in Lutheran CORE.

[10] A millennialist rhetoric of declension and dualism runs like a red thread throughout the movement. Mark Chavez, Lutheran CORE President, recently claimed that “the 2009 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly made grievous decisions that will not help the denomination in the years ahead.”12 Chavez based such prophecy on statistics that he used to claim that congregations supporting gays and lesbians have lost a higher percentage of members than other Lutheran churches. In fact, Chavez’ own numbers reveal that both types of Lutheran congregations lost double-digit percentages of members — and, strictly speaking, the slightly higher loss in gay-friendly versus gay-unfriendly congregations was not statistically significant. Even more: if decline is really a concern, then shouldn’t finding some way to address the shared double-digit loss be the goal, rather than just targeting one group as having a problem? “Prophecies” like Chavez’ use millennialist rhetoric to stoke fear of decline and then, rather than proposing constructive solutions to the problem, divide the church by blaming one party.

[11] Similarly, Jaynan L. Clark, Word Alone President, recently opined that the churchwide assembly actions caused “chaos” and “confusion,” and that the votes on sexuality in particular were a “deadly, poisonous gas” that “killed the canary” in the mineshaft of the ELCA.13 Aside from the horrific, and less than theologically apt, metaphor, such language does reflect typical American millennialist (if not apocalypticist) rhetoric of a certain, radio-talk show stripe. It tries to intensify a crisis, and isolate enemies, rather than understand root causes.

[12] And, finally, in several recent jeremiads, Lutheran CORE leader Robert Benne imagines that the ELCA is in decline because it has accommodated itself to American “liberal Protestantism.” “Skewed commitments,” by which Benne means the liberalism of Lutherans in the ELCA, “led to dramatic membership losses.”14 Apart from the fact that this is lousy history, it also reveals again American millennialist and dualistic scapegoating — someone must be to blame for declension — as a founding assumption underneath the movement.

[13] Historically speaking, in fact, immigration patterns and birth rates have far more to do with Lutheran membership ebbs and flows in America than anything else. It’s not as if Lutherans used to be great evangelists and theologians and have now become lousy at both. Instead, as E. Clifford Nelson’s classic The Lutherans in North America documents, Lutheran growth in the United States can be traced directly to the waves of immigrants from European countries that hosted Lutheran majorities.15 Most of these early Lutheran immigrants to America also procreated enthusiastically; it was necessary to have large families to counter high infant mortality rates and to provide laborers for the farms most Lutherans worked to make a living.

[14] In recent decades, and especially since the dramatic changes in immigrant law established by Congress in 1965, immigrants to America have come primarily from Latin America, Africa, and from South and East Asia, and decidedly not from Scandinavia and Germany.16 Couple that with the fact that in the late twentieth century Lutherans began to practice birth control and to have smaller families (to their moral credit, globally and ecologically speaking), and the causes for Lutheran “decline” clearly take root not in some imagined Lutheran doctrinal purity or its absence, but in documented demographic shifts.17

[15] Furthermore, it is not just liberal churches that are suffering numerically. Even culturally “conservative” churches associated with European enclaves (such as the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church — if you subtract Latino/a membership increases due to the new immigration) are now losing numbers across North America.18 And perhaps most substantively, for many decades, if not centuries, Americans have chosen churches less for their theological heft than because of their ethnic identity, geographical convenience or entertainment value.19 The millennial (if not apocalyptic) rhetoric of declension that marks Lutheran CORE masks demographic causes for change that can explain, without blame, why Lutheran congregations are closing and denominational budgets shrinking.

[16] But, beholden to American moralism, Lutheran CORE members want to find someone to blame. “Liberals” or the “elites” at “churchwide,” become the scapegoats. Such anti-authority authoritarianism mirrors, once again, exactly the uncivil discourse of angry-without-a-cause white males who currently dominate the talk-radio waves across the country, and who are overt partisans for the civil religion.20

[17] Most notably, the chief rhetorical gambit of Lutheran CORE members is to assert that churches should affirm “the biblical view of marriage and sexuality.”21 Only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, historian Stephanie Coontz has recently suggested that if one studies history and practice rather than selected normative proof-texts, it might well be argued that “the biblical view of marriage” is polygamy.22 Even more provocatively, biblical scholar Alan Segal has recently suggested that Hellenistic sexual practices during the era when the biblical texts were being codified led to a norm of “one man and as many women [or men and boys] as he could pay for.”23 It was in this milieu, of imperial-driven orgies, legitimated rape of slaves and servants, and pay-to-play patriarchy, that the biblical writers advanced a profoundly counter-cultural ethic of sexual mutuality between partners.

[18] In contrast to this biblical ethic of mutuality, which the ELCA social statement Gift and Trust clearly articulates, Lutheran CORE leaders derive from (or impose on) Scripture a decidedly modern template for a decidedly fragile and variable human institution and set of practices. Companionate, romantic marriage is a modern innovation largely alien to the biblical world.24 This reading of modern American mores into the biblical witness is classically found among fundamentalists in the United States, who turn God’s living Word into a moral rulebook, rather than a revelation of the universal weight of sin and God’s gracious mercy.25 Such moralistic proof-texting violates both Scripture and classical Lutheran hermeneutics.

[19] Luther’s central insight about marriage, based on his study of Scripture, and which led him to break his vow of mandatory celibacy, was that marriage was a civil matter.26 In more contemporary terms, this means that marriage, as I have put it frequently in public (with no offense meant to my wife of 28 years), is work. Marriage is a human institution, and sexual and gender norms are subject to cultural variation and change, as the case of polygamy in Scripture, and the broader Protestant break with rules about celibacy, divorce, and (most recently) about all-male clergy, rather evidently reveals.27

[20] More subtly, the blame-game of moralism among Lutheran CORE members projects a view of history that identifies ELCA leaders with having abandoned “the great tradition,” and of having left behind the norms and practices of some supposedly more morally pure earlier age in favor of a relativistic liberal tolerance. Robert Benne again claims that Lutherans were once “protected from the allure of American culture by their thriving ethnic enclaves, but that day is over. We’re all Americans now.”28 As with Benne’s false claim about the cause of numerical losses among Lutherans, this rosy-colored view of past Lutheran ethnic harmony and purity is also historical nonsense. It does, ironically, suggest how Benne identifies as “American,” projecting onto “all” his own parochial commitment to the nation and its civil religion.

[21] In fact, any fair reading of the histories of the predecessor bodies to the ELCA will recognize that Lutherans in those churches (and especially the laity) were, by and large, stumbling over one another to be as American as possible, as quickly as possible, consciously or unconsciously, while also managing to bicker constantly over issues like millennialism, predestination, membership in lodges, and more.29 In fact, most (if not all) of those churches were rather rabid defenders of the American way — in both Northern and Southern manifestations — and felt compelled to prove their patriotism over and against charges of disloyalty if not treason.30 It is only recently — since the emergence of Lutherans out of ethnic tribalism and into ecumenical and global activism and advocacy — that some self-critical perspectives and constructive engagement with American culture have begun to develop among Lutherans.31

[22] For instance, the ELCA social statements (a favorite target of Lutheran CORE members) embrace a paradoxically critical and affirming approach to American society that is far more nuanced and authentic in its Lutheranism than most of the productions by the supposedly pure ethnic churches that preceded the ELCA. The social statements tackle issues those churches largely did not or would not take up — race, economics, war and peace, the environment, and abortion — in ways that simply do not fit Lutheran CORE’s stereotype of “liberalism” in the ELCA. The abortion statement is a perfect case in point. It sees abortion as tragic, something to be avoided, but also not to be legislated out of existence, especially in cases of rape or danger to the health of the mother.32 Such a paradoxical, nuanced judgment is characteristic of Lutheran public theology at its best. The caricatures of Lutheran CORE — Benne claims that “no one can really challenge the ELCA’s … persistent pro-choice stance on abortion” — are, simply, false.33 They do reflect the moralism of the American civil religion.

[23] The uncritical way members of Lutheran CORE embrace American imperial piety is most evident, however, in the movement’s individualist, anti-institutional ecclesiology. At the core of the various movements protesting against the 2009 Churchwide Assembly actions is the so-called “Common Confession.”34 This confession emerged out of the Word Alone movement, which was founded in 1996 in reaction to the ELCA’s adoption of Called to Common Mission — an ecumenical agreement with the Episcopal Church.

[24] The Common Confession has seven affirmations.35 The first four are not problematic. Affirmation Five, however, claims that “We believe and confess that the Holy Spirit makes all who believe in Jesus Christ to be priests for service to others in Jesus’ name, and that God desires to make use of the spiritual gifts he has given through the priesthood of all believers.” Now, on one level, this seems innocuous enough: of course all believers share in ministry to one another, and to the world. But, on another level, in their statement of “Core Values,” Word Alone members clarify what they mean by “the priesthood of all believers” when they state that “We understand ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, not simply members of an institution.”36

[25] Several questions can follow, as a way to clarify the theological problems with this anti-institutional animus. Why is being “disciples of Jesus” opposed to being “members of an institution”? Doesn’t this denigration of institutions reveal an attitude oddly akin to the typical “spiritual, but not religious” mentality so peculiarly American, and so corrosive of ecclesiastical participation and unity? Even more, if being a disciple of Jesus is the model for ecclesiastical life (as it surely is), then isn’t it worth remembering that Jesus respected the Temple and Torah so much that he sought to fulfill their purposes? That Jesus was opposed to institutions was perhaps the central misunderstanding of his life and teaching on the part of the privileged authorities (religious and political) that orchestrated his death as a threat to the empire.

[26] Most seriously, though, doesn’t this anti-institutional animus betray a subtly docetic understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, rendering moot his death and new life in the body?37 As embodied beings, we need human institutions — laws, structures, civil authority and the visible church — not to save us, but as the “left-hand” of God, for good order and tranquility. All human institutions are extensions of the body; indeed, we call them “corporations,” which literally means “bodies.” And as recent developments have clearly shown, Lutheran CORE members have used an affirmation of the “priesthood of all believers” in an attempt to starve the body that is the ELCA, or to rend the body of Christ and to disturb good order and tranquility. Does not Affirmation Five of “The Common Confession,” in short, lean toward heresy in its docetic individualism, and its schismatic intent?

[27] Even more troubling is Affirmation Six of “The Common Confession,” which reads: “We believe that the marriage of male and female is an institution created and blessed by God. From marriage, God forms families to serve as the building blocks of all human civilization and community. We teach and practice that sexual activity belongs exclusively within the biblical boundaries of a faithful marriage between one man and one woman.”

[28] None of the classical creeds of Christianity assert a particular family structure, or particular sexual relations, as marks of the true church. There is a reason for this. Human institutions and human relations, again, fall under the vagaries of history. They are about our works. When they become something more than the fragile efforts to keep the peace that they are, they become vehicles of self-righteousness. By inserting the purity of a particular type of sexual ethics, or a particular family structure, into the “confession” of the church, does not Lutheran CORE fall into the Donatist heresy — which imagines that only visibly “pure” Christians (i.e., according to humanly-devised traditions) deserve the name, privileges and offices of being identified with Christ? This heresy historically becomes, of course, a refuge for hypocrisy — as many of the leading media preachers beholden to the American civil religion have repeatedly demonstrated in recent decades.

[29] Even more, the specific language of the way Lutheran CORE defines “marriage” has a quite clear historical origin, and it is not The Holy Bible or the Lutheran Confessions. Lutheran CORE’s language that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman” is derived directly from the recent spate of DOMA Laws, or “Defense of Marriage Acts” that have emerged in federal and state legislation as efforts to keep gays and lesbians from the civil and economic rights that accrue to couples who marry. These laws are distinctively American, and they are unjust because they legitimize unnecessary violence — as I have argued in print elsewhere.38 By adopting the language of these unjust laws as part of their “Common Confession,” Lutheran CORE reveals its loyalty not to the “great tradition” of biblical revelation and Christian creedal tradition, but instead to the imperial constructs of the American civil religion.

[30] It is no surprise, then, that the final affirmation of “The Common Confession” is an assertion of congregationalism. “The mission and ministry of the church is carried out,” the affirmation reads, “within the context of individual congregations.” This is the classical way to locate faith in the American civil religion — in private enclaves of like-minded believers. Gone is any claim at public witness on the part of Christians, who have no obligation beyond their individual piety and their individually-chosen “assembly” to work together. This takes the first half of the way Luther articulated Christian liberty — a Christian is a perfectly free servant of none, subject to none — and conveniently drops the last half — a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. Choice, which is what “heresy” means etymologically, has replaced God’s gracious calling forth of the one body of Christ, which it is every Christian’s possibility, delight, and duty to participate in through faith.

[31] Finally, Lutheran CORE manifests, in typical fashion, the “innocent domination” of American civil religion. Oppressors, or at least those who are most privileged in the society, get represented as innocent victims, which enables them to perpetuate their self-interested oppression or privilege. Lutheran CORE leaders imagine themselves, with Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas, as resident aliens, as “outsiders” from the culture. In fact, most of them are quite well established, 401K holding (courtesy of the ELCA Pension Plan), ordained (if not tenured), self-proclaimed “confessional” pseudo-radicals who have profited quite nicely from the culture. The leaders of Lutheran CORE have hitched their wagons to the backlash against the sixties sexual revolution that has dominated the so-called “culture wars” of the past three decades or so.

[32] In fact, however, it’s a joke, or a lie, to imagine that those fighting for gay and lesbian equal rights are somehow the mainstream or majority in America, when thirty-eight states have recently put Defense of Marriage Acts or Amendments on the books. Those laws, again, unjustly exclude LGBT people from quite real benefits — economic, social and civil — that heterosexuals like me and like most of the Lutheran CORE members can take for granted. As René Girard has persistently argued, scapegoating and sacrifice are chief manifestations of religious violence. It is difficult to see what real threat is posed to heterosexual intimacy, much less to civil society, by the desire of homosexuals for similar rights. It is easy to see how DOMA laws organize consent by scapegoating a relatively voiceless and powerless group.

[33] And it is even easier to see, for those who have eyes to see, how the attitudes and practices behind DOMA Laws do real violence to living, breathing human beings.39 Anyone who has ever sat with a young LGBT individual struggling to “come out” can recognize how Lutheran CORE’s “Common Confession” benefits the security and sanctimonious comfort of heterosexuals who will always (by reason of genetics) be the dominant group. Succinctly put: how many gays and lesbians must be silenced (or worse) on the altars of the American civil religion before we recognize the injustice, and sheer folly, of trying to prop up an empire, much less demonstrate the sanctity of the church, through such sacrifices?

[34] As I’ve put it repeatedly in public, the question we should be debating is not whether gays and lesbians can be saved for their supposed “sin” of loving each other and for their desire to live in committed, publicly accountable relationships. The real question is whether homophobes can be saved. Self-righteousness is the most profound violation of the First Commandment, and the greatest threat to clarity about God’s grace, as Saint Augustine clarified so long ago in his debates with Pelagius, and as the church has clarified repeatedly. Paul’s language about self-righteousness, as the epigraph to this essay demonstrates, is far sharper and persistent than his language against same-sex prostitution and other kinds of sexual immorality. To elevate a “sin” of homosexual behavior, or its toleration, to church-dividing status, and to ignore and tolerate the sin of self-righteous behavior by a privileged majority, is the very model of a schismatic and Pelagian judgment, substituting one’s own judgment for the entire law of God.

[35] So, while I hope to remain in dialogue and fellowship with individuals who oppose full inclusion of faithful LGBT people in the church or society, I can no longer tolerate the violent policies and practices, and the heretical leanings, which justify homophobia. Such policies and practices are unjust, and heresy must always be surfaced and resisted as the threat to the gospel it is. This is true even when the power plays of heresies are dressed up in cloaks of appeal to “biblical” and “confessional” authority. Know them by their fruits, Jesus taught.

[36] And the fruits of the heterosexual self-righteousness at the core of Lutheran CORE are rotten. They flow not from devotion to historical Christian teaching about grace, or from clarity about God’s law that always accuses our attempts at self-justification. They stem from the millennialism, moralism, individualism, and innocent domination characteristic of American civil religion. And they produce harm, to individuals, to institutions and to the witness of the church, on behalf of a privileged (but by their own identification, beleaguered) bloc of largely white, heterosexual, males.

[37] As my colleague Betty DeBerg demonstrated some years ago, when you scratch the surface of the earliest purity movements in America that claimed to use the Bible to “defend” its truth against “liberals,” you inevitably find your way back to sexuality and gender.40 Fundamentalism, in its origins, while including elements of millennialism, moralism, individualism, and American imperalism, was, finally, driven by a backlash against the sexual and gender role changes being wrought by the first wave of American feminists.

[38] The same is true of Lutheran CORE. Its mostly white, male, clergy fear the loss of privilege that heterosexual orientation and male status have so faithfully (and profitably) delivered over the decades and centuries.41 The targets now are not “ungodly women,” as was the case in the first wave of American fundamentalism. The targets now are LGBT individuals, and the supposedly conspiratorial elite liberals, who support the LGBT movement for justice in society, and for full participation (and accountability!) in the church. Lutheran CORE is a movement squarely placed within the broader current of American identity politics, mirroring the rhetoric of the sixties “radicals” who brought about so many of the changes Lutheran CORE members now oppose.

[39] All of the pious cant within Lutheran CORE about being “confessional” is, by and large, a smokescreen for far more quotidian and everyday anxieties and power plays to protect privilege. Informed largely by American civil religion, and seeking to preserve not the “great tradition” of the church, but instead the “traditional” values of heterosexual, white, male, privilege, it is my studied historical judgment that Lutheran CORE cannot, and will not, play a major role in the history of the church.

[40] It may be the case in America that Protestants “multiply by dividing.” But time and time again in American history, purity-renewal movements like Lutheran CORE have tended to produce “new” structures that are at least as cumbersome and conflicted as the supposedly “impure” structures they intended to replace.42 Repeatedly, “movements” of ecclesiastical dissidents become tiny corporations just like the big corporations they imagined improving. Such is the lot of human bodies in history. And such tiny corporations tend to become footnotes, at best, in the larger history of the church. That is not to say that schisms cannot have profound and damaging consequences in the lives of individuals, particular congregations, and regions. But this long-view of history can help us to affirm, in hope, that any damage wrought by schism is not the last word.

[41] As one whose vocation was indelibly altered by the schisms in the LCMS in the 1970s and after, I attended the Constituting Convention of the ELCA in 1988 with great joy and a profound sense of hope. I still carry that hope. When our hope is properly grounded, beyond the vagaries of the American (or any other) empire, we can discover confidence that despite our bickering the Spirit makes us one; that despite our sinfulness the Church is holy; that despite our divisions there is a catholic horizon awaiting all Christians; and that despite our tendency to arrogate to ourselves the power that is God’s alone, there is a continuity of Apostolic witness evident in history, through the eyes of faith. Such faith is active, forward-looking, and future-oriented without being defensive or hostile. Faith active in love remains the nonviolent power that Katie Luther, Menno Simons, Teresa of Avila, Rosa Parks, and Desmond Tutu have shown us can be a force more powerful than any other human force on the planet.

[42] The American civil religion and its violent devotees have already stored up and expressed more than a share of wrath and fury. And as the Passion stories unanimously attest, human wrath and its corresponding fury constructed the cross on which Christ was crucified, in efforts to preserve the empire and its privileges. But it is precisely through such a crucible, and the death to self-righteousness that it signifies and effects, that God’s surprising kindness, forbearance and mercy always works. Such mercy leads the faithful to repentance, and leads the church into a future of justice and peace that is also already ours, in our Baptism, as we gather at the Table and in the Easter event that ended forever, through the eyes of faith, the reign of imperial sacrifices and death-dealing powers.


1. The literature on Christianity and empire is, of course, vast. See most recently Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008); Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Saving Christianity from Empire (NY: Continuum Press, 2007), and Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).

2. See, for example, Robert Benne, “How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition for Liberal Protestantism,” in Christianity Today, September, 2009, at, and “The Christ of Culture and the ELCA,” in The Cresset, Advent-Christmas, 2009: 31-33.

3. Too little work has been done on this fascinating facet of Lutheran history. See for a few initial forays Frederick K. Wentz, Lutherans in Concert (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1968); Charles P. Lutz, Loving Neighbors Far and Near: U.S. Lutherans Respond to a Hungry World (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994); and John W. Bachman, Together in Hope: Fifty Years of Lutheran World Relief (NY: LWR, 1995). See also the webpages of the various agencies.

4. The history of the LCMS can be read along these lines. See Mary Todd, Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001) and my own Hopes and Dreams of All: The International Walther League, and Lutheran Youth in American Culture, 1893-1993 (Portland, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006[1993]).

5. The classic articulation came from Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96 (Winter 1967): 1-21.

6. See Albanese, Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976); Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Champaign: The University of Illinois Press, 2004); Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), and Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

7. The literature on this topic is vast. See again Jewett, Mission and Menace.

8. See here Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), and Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

9. See Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

10. See here Robert N. Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2007 [1985]). On revivalism, the literature is extensive, but see for a particularly helpful study on how revivalist individualism works together with custodial responsibility for the nation, Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (London/NY: Oxford University Press, 1999).

11. Jon Pahl, Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence (NY: New York University Press, 2010).

12. Mark C. Chavez, “Ears to Hear?”, online at, as accessed 3/16/2010.

13. Jaynan L. Clark, “Listen to the Lullaby or the Canary?,” online at, as accessed 3/16/2010.

14. See again Benne, “How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition for Liberal Protestantism,” in Christianity Today, September, 2009, at, and “The Christ of Culture and the ELCA,” in The Cresset, Advent-Christmas, 2009: 31-33.

15. E. Clifford Nelson, et al., The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).

16. See Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).

17. On birthrates, see Michael Hout, Andrew M. Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde, “Birth Dearth: Demographics of Mainline Decline,” in The Christian Century 122(October 4, 2005): 24-7.

18. Eileen W. Lindner, ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 2009 (NY: National Council of Churches, 2010).

19. See Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

20. The ethical dimensions of this kind of American rhetoric are ably explored in Bruce Lincoln, Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Jeffrey Stout, Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (South Bend, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).

21. See, for one of many examples, Word Alone Network Board of Directors, “What to Do When…,” online at, as accessed 3/16/2010.

22. See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (NY: Viking, 2005).

23. Segal is quoted in Lisa Miller, “Our Joy [Gay Marriage],” in Newsweek, December 6, 2008, online at, as accessed 3/17/2010.

24. See again Coontz, and (for the American story, which reinforces this insight) Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

25. See Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into America’s Evangelical Subculture, 4th ed (NY/London: Oxford University Press, 2006[1991]), and his more recent Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (NY: Basic Books, 2006).

26. See Paul E. Capetz, “Reformation Views on Celibacy: An Analogy for Gay Protestants Today,” in The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity, ed. Margaret D. Kamitsuka (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010): 115-131.

27. See Anna Clark, Desire: A History of European Sexuality (London/NY: Routledge, 2008).

28. Benne, “The Christ of Culture and the ELCA,” op cit.

29. See again Hopes and Dreams of All, along with L. DeAne Lagerquist, The Lutherans (Westport, CT/London: Praeger, 1999).

30. See again Nelson, who documents especially well the problems facing German Lutherans during World War I, pp. 394-400.

31. See, for instance, David E. Settje, Lutherans and the Longest War: Adrift on a Sea of Doubt about the Cold and Vietnam Wars, 1964-1975 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

32. The Statement is online at, as accessed 3/17/10.

33. Benne, “The Christ of Culture and the ELCA,” p. 33.

34. See “The Common Confession,” online at, as accessed 3/16/2010.

35. Ibid.

36. Word Alone, “Core Values,” online at, as accessed 3/16/2010.

37. Indeed, according to literary scholar Harold Bloom, it is just such a docetic Gnosticism that is at the core of the American civil religion. See The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

38. See my “The Religious Violence of ‘Defending Marriage,’ Sightings, March 12, 2009, online at, as accessed 3/17/10.

39. I document the violent consequences of the silencing experienced by many LGBT individuals in a volume I edited, An American Teacher: Coming of Age, and Coming Out — The Memoirs of Loretta Coller (Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2009).

40. Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

41. Word Alone network, the oldest and most established of the “opposition” groups within the ELCA, features 9/10 white male members on its Board of Directors. The one woman is the wife of a prominent Lutheran seminary professor who has also been vocally opposed to the ELCA’s recent decisions. I have studied the web list of clerical leaders for the roughly 300 congregations that have affiliated with LCMC, and discovered there that its ratio of male clergy to female clergy is roughly 10 to 1, or approximately 275 males to 27 females (and of those female clergy, at least eight are associate pastors on multi-pastor staffs.) Finally, the Lutheran CORE Advisory Committee features seventeen men and two women, and the Steering Committee is eight men and two women.

42. See here Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion, Volume 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), and Richard T. Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Champaign, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.